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Aaron Lansky: The Guardian Angel of the Yiddish Books

by Gad Nahshon

This is the story of a unique Jewish landmark: The National Yiddish Book Center. This is the story of an international-cultural institution whose moral sacred mission is to keep the Yiddish culture and heritage alive. In 1980 a young 23 year old student, Aaron Lansky, decided to dedicate his life to a special crusade: to save, find and collect Yiddish books. Books which survived the Holocaust or the ignorance and the indifference of the Jewish people to the fate of these books, and also the persecution of Jews and the Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union.

Lansky related to these books as his own children, believing that "to rescue a culture, the first thing you do is rescue books." Lansky established a group of volunteers and call on the public to rescue these books. Then he developed a collection system. Slowly, slowly, he built a unique Jewish landmark located at Amherst, MA, or near the main entrance to Hampshire College.

This landmark, The National Yiddish Center, has already attracted around one million visitors. The center or "the Harry and Jeanette Building" is located at 1021 West Street, the campus of Hampshire College (413-256-4900).

Lansky is the President of this prestigious center. Lansky has indeed contributed to the Yiddish survival and "comeback." He is proud of his achievements: 1.5 million books. And 1,000 books are pouring in every week. The center is serving many universities in America. Many academic institutions have a department of Yiddish studies. Of course, only few secular Jews speak and read Yiddish. Most of the Yiddish speaking in America are religious Jews especially from Brooklyn Kiriat Yoel or Williamsburg. They keep the Yiddish alive.

Lansky believes in education. He wants to outreach the young generation. For them, he developed a National Public Radio series: "Jewish short stories from Eastern Europe and beyond." The center has one more tool: "Pakn Treger" (English language magazine) which discuss Jewish issues, such as the history of the Klezmer music. The center has an organization of 30,000 members who help in the fight to preserve the Yiddish heritage in America.

Lansky devoted himself to build a modern center. In 1989, he managed to build a new 8 million dollar building (a 10 acre facility located in a rolling apply orchard on the Hampshire College campus). It is a beautiful building. Lansky is used to reading stories in the media, praising his accomplishment: "The only completely grassroots Jewish organization in America." The Time Magazine praised his work and so did the New York Times.

Many used to tell Lansky "why bother, the Yiddish is dead." This negative attitude only motivated Lansky to do more for the Yiddish culture. Like a detective, he searched for Yiddish books, most of them out of print. He courted the tribe of Jews who love to collect Yiddish books. In Yiddish, they are being called zamlers and Lansky is the King.

Well, this is a non-stop mission. Many Yiddish books were looted by the Nazis and their collaborators. We must redeem or 'liberate' these books. Today, the focus is on art, looted art, Swiss accounts, the Nazi gold, but we should look for the looted books. We should note that the center is a unique building in America. Its distinctive architecture recalls the traditional Shtetl. At the heart of the building is the book repository. It is the storage of the books and also, Yiddish and Hebrew sheet music. The center has the largest collection of Yiddish books in the world. You can find or buy books on many topics from literature to cookbooks in Yiddish, of course. The center features many exhibitions on Yiddish theatre or on Yiddish history. The center also offers 'summer programs' on Yiddish culture.

The center offers many events such as "Almonds and Raisins: A History of the Yiddish Cinema" or "The Wisdom of Chelm," (humorous folktales about the wise men of Chelm).

It is a must for every Jew to visit this center and enjoy the feeling of visiting Yiddish books - books with the soul of the Jewish people and hope.

"Yiddish has not spoken its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world" remarked Isaac Bashvis Singer in 1978, when he received his Nobel Prize. Indeed, the National Yiddish center and its founder, the guardian angel of the Yiddish books, Lansky, have contributed to this revelation and to the unfolding of the Yiddish culture.

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